MANAGUA – Every weekday, Spider-Man jumps out from traffic lights in Managua to rescue his family finances, but Nicaragua’s COVID-19 epidemic is preventing him from achieving his main feat of “bringing home the bacon.”
Along with a Venom without his suit, Spider-Man earns a living by performing “faro” or a performance, such as street dancing, at traffic lights amid window cleaners and street vendors, who are part of an army of more than 1.5 million underemployed in the country, according to official data.
In the sun or the rain, Spider-Man and Venom fight a never-ending duel, which at best give them the equivalent of $7.30 at the end of the day, or just small change if their street show is not so lucky.
“There are good days and bad days. I save the little I earn. (This money) helps afford my living a little more, and with it I support my mother as much as I can,” said Steven Garmendia from inside the suit of Spider-Man, his favorite superhero.
Without the superpowers of Spider-Man, or the skyscrapers to showcase them, the young Garmendia recreates Peter Parker in his daily life, with his high pompadour and glasses. An authentic similarity is achieved with his shyness, because out of respect for his mother, who does not agree with him dancing in public or earning money by putting out a hat, he refuses to show his face and speak to the camera.
In that, Venom – 24-year-old Diedrich Diaz – wins. He is one of more than 400,000 Nicaraguans who lost their jobs after the socio-political crisis of 2018, and who, seeing few options, came up with a way to make money doing what they both love – street dancing. However, he recognizes that in the midst of the pandemic it is more difficult.
“In fact, there are weeks when only three or four cars are there at the stoplight,” says Diaz, who believes that wearing masks during the “faro” inspires the same fear among people as a criminal does.
“Right now, it has been very hard, really, because people, as they see us like this without protection or anything, are afraid of just opening the car window to give us something. And if they give us something, they throw the coin at us, or they drop it into our hands, but yes, it has been hard,” he said.
Spider-Man and Venom have fears of contracting COVID-19, but said that they cannot stay at home because otherwise they will not have money to support themselves, and will become part of the more than 600,000 people who are expected to lose their jobs in Nicaragua by the end of 2020.
The country’s underemployment situation is what President Daniel Ortega claims to defend, stating that he cannot establish measures to contain the spread of the epidemic, because that would mean halting the country’s economy, since it is based on informal workers, which account for 75% of the Nicaraguan labor force, according to business sources.
However, the greatest fear of young people is the lack of information, since that provided by the government is scarce and confusing, limits prevention, causes fear and reduces their earnings.
“The situation is increasingly critical, and there is not enough information – neither on the networks nor on television – that we know about the virus,” says Diaz.
The Ministry of Health has only reported 16 cases of the new coronavirus, including five deaths, but the independent COVID-19 Citizen’s Observatory reports 781 cases and 88 deaths linked to the pandemic.
The state management of information on the coronavirus is similar to other aspects of public life that are controlled in Nicaragua, and that have led to dissenters accusing Ortega of being a dictator.
This control caused another “superhero” to decline to speak to EFE, because the only time he gave an interview he was expelled from the traffic lights by the authorities, and he spent years trying to make his reappearance elsewhere.
Earning money independently in the midst of the pandemic is especially difficult in a country where 58.3% of its 6.3 million inhabitants live in poverty and 29.5% live in destitution, according to data from the Central American Integration System.
The future does not look very promising for the underemployed, since experts have warned that Nicaragua’s economic recession will soon turn into a depression, and this time the authorities have not stepped up to deny it.
The Nicaraguan government expected that in 2020 the gross domestic product would show a slight growth of 0.5%, after falling by -4% in 2018 and by -3.9% in 2019; however, the International Monetary Fund and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean have predicted drops of between -6% and -5.9%, while the non-governmental Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development estimates up to -13.7%.
In other words, Garmendia and Diaz will see fewer and fewer cars at their traffic lights, and they will have a difficult time maintaining their university studies of English.
With those numbers, Spider-Man, Venom, and the army of 1.5 million underemployed Nicaraguans are facing the epidemic in the worst-case scenario – that of poverty, which threatens to become extreme.